Too American for Bialik

Why the great modern Hebrew poet was angered by a pupil named Naomi Lockstein and her teachers when he visited the United States in 1926.

In 1926, the great Hebrew poet Haim Nahman Bialik paid an extended visit to the United States as an emissary of Keren Hayesod to the United Palestine Appeal (a joint agency run by Keren Hayesod and the Jewish National Fund). American Jewry went to extraordinary lengths to show its immense esteem for the "genius of lofty poetry," "the Redeemer," and "the Prophet," organizing mass parties, rallies, one-day conferences and special literary forums to honor both Bialik and his cultural ideology. In the context of these efforts, he was awarded two honorary doctorates, about which he wrote to another leading Jewish intellectual, Ahad Ha'am [the pen name of Asher Ginsberg, 1856-1927]: "I have been `doctorated' on two occasions, which now means that I am twice the ass I once was."

In this letter to Ahad Ha'am, Bialik does, however, note how much he regarded this visit as a source of personal satisfaction and how important it was for him. Nonetheless, he was not happy with the excessive praise his hosts showered upon him to the point of deification and he found objectionable the showiness and the theatricality of some of the enthusiastic but stuffy events organized for his benefit.

Bialik especially detested the speeches he was forced to listen to - a "terminal disease" that he dubbed "speech-itis." His impatience with ceremonies and speeches at times bordered on rudeness. Evidence can be found for this character trait even in the era preceding his visit to America. A. Ya'ari describes a rally organized for Bialik when the poet paid his first visit to the Holy Land in 1909: "With each successive speech, his face became sterner. Sparks of fiery rage could be seen in his eyes. Suddenly, he stood up, enraged, and stopped one speaker in the middle of his lecture." Bialik thus put a stop to the speaking and ended the ceremony with a few sentences of rebuke, preventing the other welcomers from delivering their scheduled addresses.

It is quite possible that Bialik sought to liberate himself - or at least enjoy a brief respite - from the American strain of "speech-itis," from the theatrical and flowery rhetoric and from the words "that shine like costume jewelry and which try to use their false charm in order to appear beautiful," by paying visits to Jewish schools in America and by mingling with pupils who were pure of heart and who, unlike the adults, still spoke an unsullied tongue. Perhaps he was expressing a wish conveyed in one of his poems ("It passed before my very eyes ... I will seek the children playing so naively beside the gate, I will mingle among them, I will learn their speech, their dialect").

However, much to his disappointment, Bialik discovered that the disease had spread to the American Jewish community's educational institutions as well. The speech delivered by a young Jewish girl named Naomi Lockstein, at a festive party organized at her New York City school in Bialik's honor, struck the poet as reflecting too strongly the "American style," and he reacted with a critical comment that was very painful to the young pupil's ears.

Some moments of happiness

A similar incident in which a pupil aroused Bialik's disgust is related by Haim Beinart in his description of the poet's visit to Riga in 1932: "When Bialik arrived in Riga, a festive welcoming party was organized in his honor ... One of the pupils ascended the stage, showered words of praise on Bialik, calling him `the poet of rage and redemption.' As he listened to her speech, his face steadily reddened. She was immediately followed by an eight-year-old girl who sang the words of his poem, `Is there anyone like my child, is there anyone like my nestling?' To this very day, I still remember the expression of happiness on Bialik's face as he listened to the girl sing. When she had finished, he called her over, gave her a kiss and presented her with a flower from the bouquet that had been prepared in his honor."

Bialik had many moments of happiness in the schools of the American Jewish community as well. One of those moments is contained in a childhood anecdote that Pesha Gottlieb recently related to me. She was an eight-year-old pupil in New York when Bialik visited her school. She vividly recalls how excited she was when she sat on the renowned Hebrew poet's knee and gave him - in Hebrew - her explanation of Rashi's commentary on the weekly biblical portion "Toldot." Apparently, Bialik could not have wished for a higher degree of enthusiasm for Bible study.

Returning to our previous story, it should be noted that, after Bialik sent a letter of encouragement and conciliation to the pupil he had offended [see below] and a letter criticizing her teachers for not educating her properly, the school's principal, Nachum Aaronson, wrote an emotional thank-you letter to him, in which he reported to the poet the "immense excitement" and the "great joy" his pupils felt when Bialik's letter arrived. In the wake of that letter, the principal told Bialik, the "girls were given a powerful incentive to carry out major projects in their school." The thank-you letter accompanied the announcement that the school's administration had decided to memorialize the chain of events "as an important historical event to be entered in the school's records."

In his letter, Aaronson makes no attempt to enter into a debate with Bialik, who shifted the blame from the pupil to her teachers. It can be assumed that Bialik's letter to the pupil and his words of rebuke to her teachers were regarded as a single "package," and this educational fiasco was transformed into a lesson in educational, human and moral terms.

Dear Mr. Bialik

March 11, 1926 [the week of biblical portion] Vayakhel-Pekudei, [Hebrew calendar year], 5686

To the Jewish People's distinguished poet, H.N. Bialik,

I am very sorry about the "educational fiasco" that occurred during the reception party that was held in your honor on Wednesday evening, when, in commenting in your speech about the words of greeting said by the pupil, who did a truly wonderful job, you said that they were not natural and that they instead sounded mechanical.

Besides the fact that this sweet pupil was offended by that comment, it could have a negative impact, given her gloomy mood, on all of my school's educational activities. Perhaps her spirits might be lifted and the educational fiasco amended through a letter signed by you, in which you express your thanks to her for her words of greeting and in which you indicate to her what path she should take. Such a letter would be of great benefit to our school's educational activities, to Jewish education, in general, and to modern Hebrew culture, which is so important to you and to which you, a true and great poet of modern Hebrew literature, devote so much energy.

In the spirit of the Jewish renaissance,

Nachum Aaronson,


P.S. The pupil's name is Naomi Lockstein. When I finished the letter, the pupil entered my office. She has been plunged into a deep sorrow and her heart is bleeding. Her pain was so great that I simply could not be indifferent. I therefore urge you to soothe her pained spirit and to calm her mood - because she has taken this whole incident to heart.

Dear Mr. Aaronson

Adar 29, 5686 (March 15, 1926)

Dear Mr. Aaronson,

Thank you for your letter. I would never want to cause any emotional pain to such a sweet, lovely young girl. She is not to blame for her exaggerated hand movements and loud intonations. Her teachers are to blame. Let us hope that Hebrew teachers in America will realize that theatrical charm is hollow and that, even when one is making a speech, modesty and restraint are essential. If I have expressed rebuke for this American style of rhetoric, my rebuke was certainly not directed toward this young girl.

With greetings from Zion,

H.N. Bialik

Dear Naomi

Adar 29, 5686 (March 15, 1926)

Dear Naomi Lockstein,

My sweet child, I was delighted by your words of greeting at the reception in Brownville. I want to thank you and all the pupils on whose behalf you spoke. May all of you become religiously observant and caring adults who will love your nation and your homeland.


H.N. Bialik